Little kids have this way of being brutally honest in all facets of their life (that is, when they’re not telling an obvious lie about eating all the cupcakes, even as their face is smeared with icing). Many young children prize honesty and, when they’re still too young to understand how their words might hurt, offend, or embarrass someone else, they can say some real cringeworthy things.
Of course, we want to raise honest children, but we also don’t want to find ourselves stuck in a grocery store line with a small child who is pointing at the woman ahead of you and saying, “Mommy, that lady is really big.”
Unfortunately, it’s hard to teach a child to develop and utilize a verbal filter (some people never quite manage it), but there are a few things you can teach them over time to minimize the amount of people they offend along the way.
You don’t have to say everything you think
To spend time with a small child is to witness, in real time, the inner workings of their brain. That is, if they see a thing, they feel compelled to tell you about that thing. If they think a thing, they must say that thing. When I used to drive my three-year-old former foster son to visit his biological parents who lived 90 minutes away, it would be a full 90-minute commentary on the weather, the trees, and the bridges—all the way there and all the way back.
But just like we have private parts of our bodies, we can teach our kids that we also have private parts of our thoughts. You can encourage this when they’re yammering on by saying you want to take a few minutes to have some private thoughts. They’ll be so curious what you’re thinking about (you’ll be thinking how blissful the temporary silence feels, which of course you won’t tell them), but you’re modeling for them the idea that you can hold some things back.
This can also help you segue into a conversation about the difference between secrets, privacy, and surprises when it comes to divulging information to others.
We don’t comment about other people’s bodies
This is the genre of brutal “honesty” that is most likely to cause embarrassment or hurt feelings—the critiquing or describing of someone else’s body or appearance. It can come out of nowhere, where one day they just suddenly start commenting about the female cashier’s “boy hair cut” or their father’s “big belly.”
We can stress with them that compliments, such as “you look pretty,” or “I like your shoes,” are okay because they make people feel good. But commenting on a person’s size, shape, or style in other ways might hurt their feelings. Watch for opportunities to point this out; for example, if someone on a TV show calls another character “pudgy” in a pejorative manner you might say, “Oh, that wasn’t nice. I bet that hurt their feelings. It would certainly hurt my feelings, which is why I don’t talk about other people’s bodies that way.”
When you’re in the moment, you can deflect by saying something like, “Yes, her hair is cut short, it looks very nice that way,” or “I don’t think Dad’s belly is big at all, but remember—we don’t comment on other people’s bodies.”
You’re not a food critic
Little kids don’t care if you just spent an hour whipping up a lovely home-cooked meal; if it smells funky, tastes strange, or has a texture they’re not used to, you are likely to get their most dramatic disgusted face, along with a nice, “Ew, gross!” for good measure. This one is particularly challenging for a child who is selective about what flavors and textures they like to eat.
For these kids, teaching them early (and often) at home about the “polite bite” can head off a situation where they proclaim that grandma’s famous homemade meatballs, in fact, taste like garbage. You certainly don’t need to force them to eat something you know they don’t like, but if it’s a new food they’re trying, they can take a “polite bite” or test bite to try it—if they don’t like it or don’t want any more, they can simply say, “No, thank you.” No further critique is necessary or helpful.
At the beginning, that “no, thank you” will also be accompanied by a look of utter disgust, but we’re getting there.
The “no offense, but” rule
This one is good for kids and adults alike, and it comes to us courtesy of my sister-in-law. On an extended family vacation one summer when my son was maybe six or seven years old, he felt compelled to weigh in on something that was none of his business. “No offense, but…” he started, and what followed is something I can no longer remember, but I’m sure it wasn’t great.
That’s when she taught him something we should all take to heart: If you have to start a sentence with, “No offense, but…” what you’re about to say next is going to be offensive. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t have to qualify it. So whenever they feel compelled to preemptively excuse their rudeness, teach them it’s best to skip the point entirely.
Once you’ve done all of that, simply hold on tight for them to outgrow it.